Having a Mock Slave Auction Isn't Teaching Students About Slavery, It's Just Racist

Jun 18, 2019 12:00:00 AM


As an educator, I am sometimes left with more questions than answers. One question that I have is how come conducting a mock slave auction is a popular way to teach slavery to elementary students?

Earlier this year in New York, a fifth-grade teacher held a mock slave auction in their class. In 2017, elementary students in New Jersey hosted a mock slave auction under the supervision of a substitute teacher. Just last week, an Oregon teacher resigned for telling biracial students they were lucky she wasn’t making them pick cotton or clean here house. Even at Howard University, an HBCU (historically Black college and university), a White professor held a mock slave auction even against the protest of his class.

What makes a teacher think re-enacting a slave auction is a good idea? What would make a teacher think that a slavery game where one can be put on the plantation repeatedly like one can be repeatedly put in monopoly jail would be a good idea? Why would a teacher think a runaway slave game was a good idea? Why would a teacher think a slave game where saying the N-word would provide students with an academically enriching experience?

Why would any teacher think a re-enactment or a simulation of antebellum America involving the topic of slavery wouldn’t end in disaster?

It’s Not That White People Can't Teach Slavery But…

I believe that it is because the teachers who are at best guilty of exercising poor judgment, or racist at worse, are White. An argument could be made that Black teachers may not teach the subject any better. However, considering that Black teachers make up less than 7% of teachers nationwide, one cannot say that with confidence. It’s not that White people can't teach slavery. But a 2018 report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center says that they teach it improperly because they were failed by their own academic preparation, in addition to the failure of textbook publishers and state standards.

The report goes even further, saying that [pullquote]slavery isn’t taught in connection to the ideology that maintained it—White Supremacy. Instead, slavery is often seen and taught through a lens that acknowledges it as a flaw that has been corrected.[/pullquote] This is the reason why you’ve never heard a White teacher re-enacting Nat Turner’s insurrection or raiding a plantation of supplies to strengthen a local maroon. It’s the same reason why movies like Green Book, The Blind Side and other racial reconciliation movies are problematic.

Robin DeAngelo spoke to the notion that “to be White is to insulate yourself from the concept of race; not having to think about being White.” In other words, White people can choose to live and/or remain in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. Race-based stress is a consequence of emotional pain that a person may feel after encounters with racism, which can be understood in terms of specific types of acts. One may express the stress through anxiety, anger, rage, depression, low self-esteem, shame and guilt. 

Who would willingly put themselves in a situation where they have to experience that type of stress? White people have the privilege not to and many choose not to. However, Black people experience such stress daily. Even if a White person took a multicultural class in college or a diversity training at work, it is rarely, if ever, the sort of educational experience that pushes them to a place of forcefully exploring Whiteness as a structural or institutional advantage.

This is why [pullquote position="right"]many White teachers might feel uneasy teaching the topic of American slavery—because they are ill-equipped, incapable or both.[/pullquote] Rather than actually do research themselves; search through the vast literary or video resources on the topic, White teachers will either rely on textbooks whose corporate offices decided to Whitewash slavery or rely on their own creativity without the cultural sensitivity and intellectual integrity necessary to bring a tough topic to life in a way for students of all races to grapple with the pain slavery has caused us as a nation politically, socially and economically.

…And some teachers are racist.

Telling the Whole Truth

Racism is not the same thing as prejudice and discrimination. Racism is a social construct whereby the racist can withhold a benefit, an opportunity or a right from someone systematically because institutions allow it. It’s why textbooks can whitewash history and sell their books to schools. You won’t find too many Black people, if any, on those corporate boards or executive suites. It is why teachers can either half-ass teach students about slavery or simply gloss over it altogether. Eighty percent of teachers are White and 77% of administrators are White also. Is it any wonder why our history curricula around the country looks the way that it does?

Racism is embedded in the institutions of our society. Throughout the Black experience, we were excluded from political power, economic power and social mobility. The Compromise of 1877 reversed the political gains achieved through Reconstruction. Jim Crow laws solidified the political and economic controls where by much of American government remains White and segregation still exists in housing and in our schools. The mass incarceration of Black people is fuel by mandatory minimums that employ economically depressed areas while at the same time line the pockets of stakeholders in private prisons. According to the 13th amendment, those prisoners can be used for slave labor. See the prisoners who “volunteered” to fight wildfires in California.

To teach American slavery and to teach it properly is critical to understanding how our nation was shaped and how our nation functions today. White teachers who fail to teach the topic properly fail to prepare all students for the world we currently live in. Ours is not a world absent of race-based stress. Therefore, White teachers must teach the whole truth of our nation’s original sin. More Black teachers must be hired to teach the whole truth of American slavery. Without American accepting it’s bitter pill, we will never achieve the opportunity for relief.

Rann Miller

Rann Miller is a director of a federally funded after-school and summer program in southern New Jersey. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. Rann is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in  SalonAlterNet, and the  Progressive, where he is an education fellow.

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